Part 2 in a series on managing programmers

The second lesson I learned after being thrust into management was this:

Make the call.

Management didn’t confer any secret knowledge or special skills. Nothing about me had really changed from one day to the next. Except that all of a suddenly folks around me expected me to make the tough decisions.

Suddenly people would approach me with an issue. I’d listen and try to figure out what the problem was, and maybe think up a solution or two. Then I’d try to ask them what they thought about it. Hey, you’re smart. We’re paying you to know this stuff. So what do you think?

And more often than not they’d respond with something like: “Well, um, I’m not sure. That’s why I’m asking you.”

So here’s the crazy thing about being in leadership:

People expect you to lead.

I’m lucky. I get to work with wicked smart folks. So I expect them to have thought things through. And I’m usually no where near the most qualified person to make this decision. But there you have it. When the going gets tough your team members will expect you to make the call. That’s right, you’re “The Decider“, for better or for worse.

And this is a Good Thing. Making the call is, after all, why you’re there. Yes, it’s your job to make tough decisions in the face of uncertainty and lack of information and time pressure. What’s more: If you want to keep on making “the big bucks” and retain that fancy manager title then those spur-of-the-moment decisions will need end up being right more often that they’re wrong.

No pressure.

At the end of the day, being asked to make the call with insufficient information day in and day out is one of the major reasons why I see plenty of smart geeks quickly leave management roles or try to avoid them at all costs. It’s not really in our nature, because most of us technical types are information-driven. We’re type “C” in the DISC model, as the cats over at Manager Tools like to remind us. Our default mode is “ready, aim, aim, aim, aim…”. So making decisions quickly without enough information makes us really nervous.

Moreover, problems are often political. Yep, that’s part of the job too. Often the best technical answer to the problem is pretty clear to see, but implementing it means somebody’s feelings are going to get hurt. That’s why your team is coming to you. And while taking responsibility for something that might get somebody fired seems like a tough gig, it’s really the most important and best thing you can do. Really.

So if you’re a geek who’s suddenly found him or herself in a leadership role, and now everyone’s looking to you to make the decision, how do you do it?

Tips on how to make tough decisions

  • Accept responsibility for the decision. This is really important because it’s where you get a chance to exercise your role power and political power in a really positive way. By accepting that it’s your job to make this tough call, you’re helping to take the pressure off of your team member. It’s very often this pressure to make the right decision that’s brought your team member to you in the first place. And removing some of this pressure will help free them up to focus on solutions and not consequences.

  • Ask for recommendations again. It goes like this: “Hey, thanks for coming to me with this issue. It’s definitely a problem, but I’m sure we’ll figure something out. So tell me… if time/money/politics weren’t an issue, what would you recommend we do?”. So first take the pressure off them and then try to get them to re-engage. Remember, they’re usually the one with the most knowledge. And it’s always good to take another quick look around before jumping.

  • Go get consensus. If you need to get up out of your chair and ask other folks what they think about a given problem, do it! Not getting up out of your chair is probably the number one mistake technical managers make. So stand up. Call a hallway meeting. If Kevin’s brought you a problem that Jake might have insight into, then drag Kevin over to chat with Jake. And make sure you get to a point where folks agree. Consensus is important because you need this to help make the decision stand. Don’t delay. Avoid the temptation of avoid putting off a decision indefinitely. Commit to a date and time. “I’ll let you know what I think by COB.” Or: “Let me check with Bob and get back to you within the hour.” It’s very natural for us to want to wait, but remember that your teammate brought this issue to you because it was important. While you sit and ponder your team is very probably at a standstill.

  • Link decisions to principles and goals. When you end up at an answer to the question or a solution to the problem, it’s a good idea to try and frame it in terms of a general principle instead of a specific solution. Choose a direction (“North”) instead of trying to specify a specific path (“42 paces to your left”). Leave yourself and your team some flexibility by letting the folks who are going to have to do the work handle the details of a specific implementation. It sounds like this: “Well, I hear you on how we’re running out of time on this project, but since we’ve all agreed that we need to do as much testing as possible even on legacy code, I’d say let’s identify the 3 most critical features and write tests for those, for starters. Do-able?”. Focusing on principles means you’re focusing on what’s reasonable based on a larger context and previously established norms.

  • Decide on plans not rules. “We must have 100% test coverage” is an empty decision without a corresponding plan for how you’ll achieve the new goal. Recognize that a decision is nothing without a plan for acting on it. While it is useful to make a general principle the foundation of your decision, it’s important to end with a plan for how the decision is going to be implemented. Here’s how that sounds: “Yes, we I agree we need to attack some of the underlying problems with the architecture. So why don’t you begin by make a list of sections of the code that already have good test coverage? Then we’ll know where we can start with the least chance of breaking things.” At the end of the day plans are more flexible, more comprehensible, and more likely to succeed in the real world than arbitrary rules.

Of course, it’s not as easy as I make it sound. But at the end of the day it’s what your team needs you to do. So make the call. It’s what you’re for as a manager.